The Almanac
September 26, 2001

Menlo Park anthropologist ponders 'center of centers'

                By Marion Softky

                Almanac Staff Writer

                For Stanford archeologist John Rick, Chavin de Huantar is
                much more than a sprawling temple complex and pilgrimage
                center high in the Peruvian Andes.

                Chavin is also a laboratory for learning about the roots of
                religion, and how a cult of priests established powers that
                influenced the growth of civilizations all over Peru two
                millennia before the Incas.

                After his seventh season excavating at Chavin, Dr. Rick, a
                resident of Menlo Park, is more convinced than ever that the
                U-shaped temples, the mysterious tunnels, the strombus
                trumpets and mythical beasts, have something basic to tell us
                about people and power.

                "It was a power system. Chavin priests must have had
                power to build those temples," he told the Stanford research
                group in an evening lecture in July. "We find Chavin pottery
                and stuff spreading all over Peru. Chavin is using these to get
                labor and materials. I see it as a feedback system."

                The name itself suggests the awe that ancient peoples must
                have held for Chavin and its mysteries. According to the
                Chavin Chamber of Tourism Web site, "Chavin" comes
                from a Quechua word meaning "center of centers" _ "the
                center of the universe as a magic and sacred place."

                Dr. Rick's passion for Chavin has grown out of a long
                association with Peru. He went there as a child with his
                father, who was studying the genetics of tomatoes _ one of
                the world's major foods that originated in Peru, as well as
                potatoes, peanuts, and maybe corn.

                In 1973, Dr. Rick started excavating in Peru. Before
                Chavin, he led teams excavating caves in the Altiplano,
                where early people lived almost entirely on vicuna because
                the land was too high to grow crops. That project ended
                some 13 years ago after a terrifying encounter with the
                Shining Path guerillas.

                Start-up religion

                Construction of the Old Temple at Chavin de Huantar may
                have started about 1,200 B.C., Dr. Rick estimates. Building
                at the site continued until about 600 or 700 A.D., and the
                site remained a ceremonial center for several hundred more
                years. Formal use ended between 200 and 300 A.D.

                While Chavin was important, it never achieved the religious
                status of Rome or Mecca, although it did function as a
                pilgrimage center and an oracle, Dr. Rick says. He attributes
                its decline to political processes and the rise of militarism.
                "Authority was now political and military rather than
                religious," he says.

                In building the massive old and new temples, the Chavin
                people demonstrated engineering, organizational, artistic and
                psychological talents.

                It was heavy engineering to divert the river Mosna around
                the temple, and to build more than a mile of galleries, plus
                vents and drains. "As much effort was put into building what
                was underground at Chavin as the buildings themselves,"
                says Dr. Rick.

                Almost 100 years of excavations at Chavin have yielded no
                major use of metal and no tools, Dr. Rick says. While there
                likely was sacrifice, no direct evidence has turned up. "There
                is reasonable evidence of both human and animal sacrifice,"
                he adds, such as broken bones with evidence of cut marks
                and burning. Breaker: Multi-media

                Located deep inside the hill at the center of crossed tunnels,
                the Lanzon, with its carvings of fanged monsters, must have
                been the mystical core of the cult.

                Dr. Rick gets excited as he describes how the priests could
                have impressed initiates, high on San Pedro cactus, with
                sound and light effects. The monster face could glow eerily
                from light reflected through vents by way of polished mirrors
                into the inner sanctum.

                A sinister roar could intensify the experience. Archeologists
                have discovered a drain close to the Lanzon, where water
                diverted from the Huachecsa River, could be turned on to
                cascade down and create the sound. "You're being set to
                believe something," Dr. Rick says.

                "We're beginning to understand the approach that early
                priests took to reinforce their developing power and
                establish authority. We're beginning to understand how they
                used sound and light and psycho-active drugs," he
                continues. "It was multi-media."

                Unlike conservative or popular religions that try to preserve
                the status quo, the Chavin cult was a radical movement
                trying to establish a new order, Dr. Rick believes. "I think
                Chavin functioned primarily for the benefit of religious
                people who were trying to make themselves powerful."

                Dr. Rick also suggests that these elaborate mysteries were
                to some extent self-serving. "I tend to see a fair amount of
                bamboozling _ they were trying to get people to buy into the
                system and pass on resources."